It has been nearly four decades since ESPN first thought to televise the NFL Draft, a seemingly crazy idea at the time. But as much as it has grown since then, it never has had quite the platform it will enjoy this week: Every round will be shown on broadcast TV.
The first three on Thursday and Friday will be shown on Fox, which will simulcast the NFL Network’s coverage, and the last four on Saturday will be shown on ABC, which will simulcast sister network ESPN’s coverage.
For Fox, the draft comes on the heels of last week’s announcement of a new “Thursday Night Football” schedule that will be carried mostly by that network, and which features what is on paper a stronger slate than in recent years.
All of the above is part of Fox positioning itself as a first among equals on the list of networks that have partnerships with the NFL. Everyone has an important piece, but only Fox has both a Sunday afternoon and prime time package.
Fox Sports president Eric Shanks said the network wants to be “America’s football authority,” and that simulcasting the draft, featuring Fox analysts Troy Aikman and Joel Klatt, is part of that.
“I think it just furthers our commitment to investing in the NFL,” Shanks said. “The draft is by far the most unique and popular offseason content in football . . . Being able to have Troy and Joel be part of the draft coverage is something that’s great for Fox and I think it will be great for people watching the draft.”
The Fox simulcast primarily will feature the familiar faces of the NFL Network, but simply having it on a broadcast network figures to boost the ratings, and likely take a piece out of ESPN’s.
But the draft is a mere appetizer compared to Fox’s excitement over the Thursday package, for which it paid dearly for a five-year deal for 11 games from Weeks 4-15 after NBC and CBS had split the Thursday slate in previous seasons.
The league has been looking to make Thursday games more attractive, and helped by giving Fox a relatively strong lineup. To help the cause, Fox offered to have some games that otherwise would have been Sunday draws move to Thursday.
“I think that our ability to work with the NFL from a philosophy standpoint was the key thing,” Shanks said, “just acknowledging and committing to the fact that Fox is as invested in Thursday as it is on Sunday. We were more than happy to have great games that perform on Thursday that may have been moved from Sunday.”
Shanks believes there still were plenty of attractive games left for Fox’s Sunday afternoon windows. The 4:25 p.m. Sunday NFL slot on Fox or CBS consistently is the most-viewed television time slot regardless of programming genre or time of day.
Some good Sunday games that would have been regionalized now can be seen nationally, expanding their reach, Shanks said.
“If you look at some of these games, they would have been probably really good games at 1 o’clock or 4:05 and might not have been able to go more than 20, 25 percent of the country,” he said. “By Fox having the ability to move more games to a prime-time national window, these games just kind of get unlocked.”
Shanks declined to say who the announcing team for the Thursday night package will be. The No. 1 NFL team of Joe Buck and Aikman is one option, but that could affect their availability for Sunday games.
“There are a lot of moving pieces and we’re trying to figure out exactly what the right thing to do for all involved is,” Shanks said. “It’s not like we’re hiding anything from anybody. We’re just trying to make sure we end up figuring out all the right pieces for the long term for the product that we want to put on the air. “
Fox’s NFL pregame show emanates from Southern California on Sundays, but the Thursday night show will originate in New York, primarily to accommodate the schedule of analyst Michael Strahan. He is a regular on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which is based in New York.
Strahan will be joined by Fox studio colleagues Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long.
“They all raised their hands and said they wanted to be a part of Thursdays so they could make it as big a success as Fox could possibly make it, and we had to find a way to make that work,” Shanks said. “What that meant was something really unique, because Strahan has to get up early for work. So we brought it out to him.”
Bradshaw and Long did not balk at the complicated travel logistics?
“No, not at all, they all called and they all raised their hand to be a part of it,” Shanks said. “Actually Terry called me before I could even call him and what I found out was that Terry had already called Howie before he called me to say that they were all in.
“I was kind of floored and proud that that’s the way the Fox family responded to us getting Thursday, and that’s just the way they are.”
Fox Sports made its first big splash in 1993 when it stunned the industry by landing what had been CBS’ NFC-heavy package. So Shanks said it only is natural that the network continue to hitch its prospects to the league and sport.
“We were born to do football,” he said. “Fox Sports wouldn’t exist without getting that first NFL deal in ’93. We’re just looking toward the future, and this kind of split in the marketplace between an on-demand marketplace and a live marketplace.
“We clearly are investing more in live and the NFL being the most important content in media in that live space. Strategically it makes sense for us to want to be the leader in that investment.”
NFL Draft plans for ESPN/ABC and NFL Network/Fox:
— ESPN will show all seven rounds, with Rounds 4-7 simulcast on ABC and with ESPN2 carrying alternate coverage focused on the college game for Round 1.
— Trey Wingo will host the main telecast, joined by Mel Kiper and Louis Riddick, with college football game analyst Kirk Herbstreit joining the panel for Round 1 in his draft coverage debut.
— Rounds 2 and 3 will be seen on both ESPN and ESPN2, before the simulcast moves to ABC.
— Also among those contributing to coverage will be Todd McShay, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter and Suzy Kolber.
— ESPN plans to have 40 cameras on-site in Arlington, Texas, plus more in select NFL team draft rooms.
— The NFL Network will show all seven rounds, with Rounds 1-3 simulcast on Fox, which will contribute coverage by NFL analyst Troy Aikman and college football analyst Joel Klatt.
— Aikman will focus on the quarterbacks projected to go early in the selection process, with both the Giants and Jets potentially in play with the second and third overall picks.
— Rich Eisen will host, joined by Mike Mayock, Daniel Jeremiah and Stanford coach David Shaw. Also contributing to the coverage will be Charles Davis, Peter Schrager and Chris Rose.